There is a key moment in the story of Ben Hur when Judah’s character is evaluating a team of horses for chariot racing. Judah knows that he has to arrange these horses in such a way that he can maximize their strengths and minimize their weaknesses. He must carefully balance their speed, their personalities, and their preferences so that he can get a team that moves like one animal. That piece of the story has always stuck with me as a metaphor for many of the things in my life that I want to bring into balance.
Over the years, I have learned to approach my reading a little bit like a charioteer would evaluate his team. There are seasons of my life in which I need more of one kind of book than another. There are seasons of my life where I have more time to read than others. And so, a few times a year I take a step back from my routines and prayerfully discern what the foundation of my reading for the next season should be. I pray and I plan, but at the end of the day, all of it is guessing and hoping. Even though I am guessing and hoping, I know that if I prayerfully discern a reading plan for myself, I am more likely to read to my best advantage than if I try to just wing it.
I am an INFJ. That may tell you a whole lot about me or very little, depending upon your knowledge of and belief in the Myers Briggs typing system. In a nutshell, being an INFJ means that I am the kind of person who takes my reading plan pretty seriously because I live mostly in my head, I wish to read things that matter to me, I would like to have a way of organizing my thoughts and my books, and I love to see connections in what I am reading. Most importantly, I hate to “waste” my reading by not getting the most out of it that I can.
I have taken many different approaches to reading over the years. Some have been perfect for the season that I was in, some have proven to be opportunities for me to learn more about myself and guesswork, and some have just been upended by unforeseen emergencies and stresses. Since forming the Potato Peel Pie Society, however, I have taken my reading plan even more seriously than before because as a group leader I understand that there is a pressure for me to be involved in the book club events. This is a very good kind of peer pressure for me. Because there is an important and valuable invitation for me to be involved in those book clubs, I need to make that reading a priority. In many cases, however, the book club selection is not a book from my desired reading list. And so, balance and scheduling of my reading becomes even more important. If I am going to honestly read along with the group, take care of my spiritual life, read for my vocation, read with my kids, and still have time to read the things that give me pleasure or challenge or satisfaction, then I need some kind of clear plan of attack.
For me, it really breaks down like this:
- I need to have a collection of audiobooks that will keep me company while I do mundane household tasks or exercise. It is best if these are re-reads of old favorites that I wish to review for Plumfield and Paideia. Re-reading those in audio format is a great way to redeem the “lost” time of housework while filling me up with old beauty that can then be summarized and evaluated for others. It gives me a great sense of joy and purpose that makes it easier for me appreciate the undesirable tasks of my primary vocation. For this kind of reading, I read at my own pace as my schedule allows.
- I need to read for my soul. This includes daily Scripture study and works of theology or Christian witness. I do this first thing in the morning. Usually I listen to scripture on my morning wake-up walk, then I either keep walking while listening to a religious book (currently I am reading The Creed by Scott Hahn) or return home and study something spiritual with my coffee. For this kind of reading, I read at a pace suggested by my church leaders and my own prayerful discernment.
- I need to read for Potato Peel Pie. It is my obligation and my joy to co-lead this book club and I want to be as present as possible in the monthly selections. Depending on the format of the book, that may either be an audiobook I listen to on walks or while I work in my journal, or it may be a spine that I read at bedtime and anywhere I can steal the time to read. For this kind of reading, I am usually trying to read just a bit ahead of the group so that I can be conversant throughout the book club.
- I long to read with my “Rabbit Trail Sisters”. We are a group of friends who tackle some scholarly reading together. Presently we are chasing some Chesterton and Shakespeare rabbits because of some things that we read in Wisdom and Innocence and In Defense of Sanity. I do this reading on Sunday afternoons and with my morning coffee during the week. For this kind of reading, we have an aggressive schedule that we tweak as we go. It is a heavy load of reading but it is rooted in the best kind of peer pressure. It is invigorating and exciting for me to read a chapter a week across five or six books that fluidly connect and speak to each other. There are seasons of my life when this would not be possible. Blessedly, right now, I can keep up.
It has not always been so “easy” to prioritize my reading and likely won’t remain this way indefinitely. I am not shooting for forever. I am seeking to be wise with the time that I do have and using it in a way that nourishes me, challenges me, and draws me closer to God’s will for my life.
UPDATE: I have updated my record keeping and created a printable template for my weekly reading and my book shelf. Check them out here.